Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Questions Do You Have for Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti School Board Candidates?

I am gearing up for the contested school board elections in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. To that end, I will be asking school board candidates to answer some questions, and I will be placing them on this blog.

You can help me by taking my survey, and suggesting questions to ask the (potential) school board members. In some cases, you may have a specific question or two for specific school board candidates.

Let me know what you would like to know! --Thanks, Ruth






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Monday, September 15, 2014

Five Things You'll Want to Know--In No Particular Order

1. Jenna Bacolor, Director of Ann Arbor Public Schools Rec & Ed, asked me to post this: 


The Ann Arbor Public Schools and the City of Ann Arbor have a joint Recreation Advisory Commission. The RAC meets four times a year, and they have a few (four!) openings right now--these are all for City of Ann Arbor residents. (For some openings, you can live in the school district and not in the city.) They are looking for dependable, interested people who can bring some expertise to the advisory commission.

This is your opportunity to win friends and influence people! (Or, influence policy, maybe.)

Here is the Frequently Asked Questions page. If you are interested, please contact Jenna Bacolor at bacolor@aaps.k12.mi.us and ask for an application.

2. You may have read that two teachers and an assistant principal lost their jobs because they didn't renew their teaching certifications. People are asking how I feel about it. 


a. I feel bad that they lost their jobs because they couldn't keep up with their paperwork.

b. I have mixed feelings about certification in general (based on my experiences with it--which I probably should write about sometime--I think it's mostly a way for universities and the state to make some extra money), but that is not the point. The point is, it's the law. The teachers in question had been warned multiple times that they needed to renew their certifications.

c. Yes, it does cost money--and time--to renew certifications. 99.9% of teachers who stay in teaching make sure to do that, but the general public should know that teachers have to spend their own money--often thousands of dollars on additional coursework--to keep up their certifications. See my qualms about certification in b, above. But still, the point is, it's the law. I hope they can get their certifications back.

3. Saline schools moved homecoming to accommodate Yom Kippur

That's progress, but next year, I hope that they check the calendar in advance of scheduling events like homecoming! Actually, I urge Saline Schools to adopt the same type of holiday policy that the Ann Arbor schools have. As Saline becomes more diverse (which it is), this becomes even more important.

4. In one of Amy Biolchini's last articles for the Ann Arbor News, she posted some predicted school count numbers for enrollment


She focused only on the school districts, not the charters.  Ann Arbor gained a lot of students--including many who live in the district already. Some of the other districts lost. I feel a little squeamish about schools of choice when I think of us "poaching" other districts students, although the realist in me feels that this is what we have to do to survive. On the other hand, I am hoping that we mostly gain back students from charters. You can't tell from this article whether that is what is happening. But I did get hopeful since even a few days into school, one of our local charters (Fortis Academy) was still showing up on my facebook feed with "we have a few more spots available." And I think they used to have a waiting list. Hope springs eternal!

5. What does Ferguson, Missouri have to do with our public schools?

Steve Norton does a nice job here explaining the connection. I'll leave you with this excerpt, but suggest you read the whole thing (bonus! it's short!):

We have a powerful remedy to the fear born of isolation and separation: community-governed public schools, which can serve to knit together communities and serve as their investment in the future. But the schools in Ferguson have been a victim of the same forces at work across the country, which insist that private control is better than community governance; that segregation is acceptable as long as it is voluntary; that it's ok to demand that our money not be spent to help someone else's child. Cheaper is always better, we are told; schools are just for job training. And poverty is simply an excuse. But this simply is not true. Public schools help shape the citizens of the future. Public schools can help heal the wounds we still carry, or they can deepen them. Public schools can bring us together or drive us apart.

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

News and Dismay, Now More Than Ever

I was rather dismayed to learn that the latest education reporter for the Ann Arbor News, Amy Biolchini, is moving to the west side of the state and September 12th is her last day.

Since I started blogging in 2009, the Ann Arbor News has lost several reporters off the education beat.

David Jesse went to the Detroit Free Press, where he's doing a nice job as a higher education reporter.
Kyle Feldscher chose to switch into reporting on courts and criminals. (I have a hard time believing that is more fun or interesting, but it definitely gets more page views and front page stories.)
Danielle Arndt moved to the west side of the stae.
Sense a pattern?

The point is--

the point is--

the point is 

that all of these reporters were fine, and could have been excellent education reporters. (Exception here: David Jesse had been, for a long time, and still is, but in a different venue.)

If only--

IF ONLY they had stuck around.

It takes time to develop sources. One reporter, in fact, is not nearly enough to cover the education beat in Washtenaw County.

Schools need the bright light of reporters digging.

And we only need look at the stories coming out of the Free Press' excellent charter series, or the information being uncovered about the EAA by Ellen Cogen Lipton and Eclectablog, to understand why.

Oh, and did I mentioned that the Ann Arbor Chronicle closed as well? Though their coverage of the Ann Arbor school board had ceased, at least there was the occasional piece about education.

On the Inside the EAA website, it says that the Freedom of Information Act is a "Tool for Transparency." For that to be true, somebody has to be there to use it...

All of this leads me feeling...dismayed. Now, more than ever.


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Sunday, September 7, 2014

AAPS Trustee Andy Thomas Takes On Michigan's Ridiculous Color-Coding System

AAPS School Board member Andy Thomas has written an excellent letter that deconstructs the ridiculous color-coding system that gave some of the best schools in the state (including some in Ann Arbor) "red" scores, and some average-at-best schools in the state "green" scores, using a green-yellow-red scheme.

I will admit that my first reaction to the whole scoring system was--this is so ridiculous--in part because it almost entirely looks at test scores--that we should just ignore it. In general, my approach to testing is that if I don't believe in it as an evaluation tool for schools (and I don't), then I shouldn't engage with it and treat it as valid.

BUT--the school systems themselves don't get that luxury. So while we are working on that "stop overtesting" thing, I appreciate someone pointing out how idiotic this so-called evaluation is.

I am publishing the entire letter. I have added the color, and also some (clearly identified as Ed. Note) "color commentary."

If you would like to see what the letter looks like all nicely-laid out, on some nice AAPS stationary, you will find it right here. I invite you to share it!


The Letter


Dear Superintendent Flanagan:

I am writing to express my concerns over the Michigan Department of Education’s “Dashboard and Accountability Scorecard” and its color-coded rating scale.  According to your spokesperson, Jan Ellis, the color scale “is meant to be a fairly easy way for the public to understand from a variety of measurements how their school buildings and districts are doing.”

Well, it may be easy to understand the color scale:  Green is the best, followed by lime, yellow, orange and red, which is the worst.  When I learned that two of Ann Arbor’s high schools – Pioneer and Skyline – received the lowest possible rating of “red”, my reaction was… I SAW RED!!!

I imagine that many parents will simply look at the color rating and make a judgment regarding the quality of a particular school.  That is, after all, the intent – to make it easy to measure how a school is doing.  Some parents may use the color scale to select what school or district they want their children to attend.  Who would want to send their child to a school given the lowest rating the state can assign?

As it so happens, I have a son who attends Pioneer High School – and his experience is absolutely inconsistent with the “red” designation.  According to “U.S. News and World Reports”, Pioneer ranked 11th out of 873 Michigan high schools; Skyline ranked 28th.  I also am a member of the Ann Arbor Board of Education, and am regularly briefed regarding the various measurements of academic success for Pioneer and Skyline – and by most objective measurements, these schools are excellent.

So where is the disconnect?  As usual, the devil is in the details.  But first, let’s look at some of the other data the State provides regarding our schools.

The Michigan Department of Education provides a “top to bottom” percentile ranking of all Michigan public schools (including charter schools) on its website.  

[Ed. Note: In the percentile ranking, being closer to 100% is better than being close to 1%.]

Pioneer ranks in the 93rd percentile of all schools in the State.  Skyline is not far behind, with a percentile ranking of 89.  So what is the relationship between the percentile ranking and the color code?  Apparently there is none. 

And which high schools earned the highest “green” rating?  I could find only three schools on the State’s database that were rated “green”.  I wanted to compare their achievement data to Pioneer to see if they scored an even higher percentile.  What I found was that none of the three “green” high schools even received a percentile ranking. Furthermore, two of the schools were listed as “closed”, and a third (Ashley) had no published achievement data, presumably due to its small size.  

Apparently, for a school to receive a “green” rating, it must either be closed or must have such a small number of students that no meaningful achievement data is available.    

Let’s move on to the next-best rating of “lime”.  At least here, there are some schools we can compare to Pioneer:




Percent of Students Proficient by Subject
Subject
Pioneer
Mayville
Reed City
White Cloud
Lake City
Math
80.88%
35..71%
31.86%
35.29%
39.39%
Reading
93.31%
66.67%
81.42%
80.88%
80.3%
Social Studies
86.14%
56,.13%
52.25%
67.16%
60.27%
Science
76.25%
45.24%
33.83%
44.12%
49.29%
Writing
88.8%
66.67%
57.41%
46.27%
66.67%
Color Rating
Red
Lime
Lime
Lime
Lime

As you can see, achievement for these four “lime” schools is significantly lower across the board than for Pioneer.  So what gives?

As I understand it, the color rating is not based on the overall achievement level of the school, but on a rubric that includes a number of subcategories of the student population.  These include: students who rank in the bottom 30% of all scores, various racial and ethnic sub-groups, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students.  Points are awarded to each of the academic subjects for each subgroup.  A maximum of 2 points are awarded per subject, for a total of 10 possible points for any given subgroup.  Additional points are added for the completion rate (i.e. graduation rate) for each subgroup, and for “other factors”, including educator evaluations and compliance factors.  The actual number of points is added up, and divided by the maximum number of possible points.  The result is a percentage, which is used to rate the schools.  The higher the percentage, the “better” the color score of the school.

Here is the way Pioneer’s score was calculated:


  

Category

Math

Reading

Soc Stud

Science

Writing

Graduation Rate
Total
Points
Awarded
Total Points Possible
All students
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
12
12
Bottom 30%
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
N/A
0
10
African American
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
1 out of 2
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
2 out of 2
3
12
Asian
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
12
12
Hispanic
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
2 out of 2
2
2
White
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
12
12
Economically Disadvantaged
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
1 out of 2
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
2 out of 2
3
12
Students with Disabilities
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
N/A
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
2 out of 2
2
10
Educator Evaluations






3
3
Compliance Factors






3
3
Totals






52
86
Percent of Points Possible







60.5%


Now, here is how Mayville’s score was computed:





Category

Math

Reading

Soc Stud

Science

Writing

Graduation Rate
Total
Points
Awarded
Total Points Possible
All students
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
12
12
Bottom 30%
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
0 out of 2
N/A
0
10
African American
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
0
0
Asian
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
0
0
Hispanic
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
0
0
White
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
2 out of 2
12
12
Economically Disadvantaged
N/A
N/A
2 out of 2
N/A
N/A

2 out of 2
4
4
Students with Disabilities
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
0
0
Educator Evaluations






2
2
Compliance Factors






2
2
Totals






32
42
Percent of Points Possible







76.2%


Both Pioneer and Mayville got the maximum number of points in the “all students” and “white” categories (although it is hard for me to understand how Mayville could get the maximum number of points in math for having only a 35% proficiency rate).  Both schools received zero points for the “bottom 30%” category.  The difference between the schools is that Pioneer is much more diverse.  There were not enough African-American, Asian, Hispanic or disabled students in Mayville to be statistically meaningful.  So they were awarded no points for these sub-groups, but neither were these sub-groups included in the “possible points” column.  So Pioneer has more than twice as many possible points, and because Pioneer received no points for some of these sub-groups, it dragged down their average.

In other words, schools with very little diversity will have higher scores than those with wider diversity.  Each additional line of sub-categories is another chance for a school to be marked down. 

[Ed. Note: What follows here is an excellent analogy, in case you were having trouble with the math.]

(To draw a somewhat ridiculous analogy:  It is as though you were comparing the GPAs of two students.  The first takes only one class (basket- weaving) and receives an A.  The second takes basket-weaving, calculus, English, physics and  Latin IV.  Even though the second student gets an A in basket-weaving and three of his other four classes, his GPA will be lower than the first student’s if he gets a B in calculus.)

So that is how the scores are derived.  But how does this relate to a school’s overall color rating?  According to the web site, the cut-off scores for the various color designations are as follows:

                  Green                     85% or higher
                  Lime                       70% to 84.5%
                  Yellow                    60% to 69.9%
                  Orange                  50% to 59.9%
                  Red                         Below 50%   

So, based on this standard, Pioneer just made the cut-off for a score of “yellow” – not exactly stellar, but still much better than its actual designation of “red”.  But there is a catch.  After all the scores are calculated, an “audit check” occurs.  If a school fails to pass certain audit criteria, the result will be an “automatic red” (or as I call it, “automatic flunk”).  One of these criteria is, if a school has more than two subgroups with less than 95% participation in assessment in any of the academic cells, it is an “automatic red” – regardless of the school’s percentile ranking, or its overall score on the rubric.  

This is what tripped up Pioneer.

[Ed. Note: For those of us who are opposed to over-testing, this is an extremely significant issue. If in a class of 50 students (or a subgroup of 50 students), more than 1 student opts out of testing, then the school automatically "flunks," even if the other 48 students all passed. Which explains, to some extent, why the school districts have so much anxiety about people opting out of tests. They are high stake for the schools.]

Pioneer’s participation rate among three subgroups was below the target of 95% participation:

Subgroup
Subject
Students Enrolled
Students Assessed
Percent Assessed
Economically disadvantaged
Mathematics
70
66
94.29%
Hispanic
Social Studies
47
43
92.41%
Economically disadvantaged
Science
70
66
94.29%

Had only one additional economically disadvantaged student been assessed in mathematics and science, the percentages for both categories would have been raised to 95.73%, and Pioneer would have been classified as a “yellow” school.  Of the 600 Michigan schools that received the “red” designation, nearly half were due to this “automatic flunk” provision.

The “automatic flunk” is apparently designed to punish schools who allow even a small number of students to fall through the cracks when it comes to taking assessment tests.  I would point out once again that this has the effect of punishing only those districts with highly diverse student populations.  If a school has no subgroups (or no subgroups large enough to be considered statistically significant), it is exempt for the “automatic fail” provision.  The more subgroups a school has, the greater the likelihood that it will miss at least one student in at least one subgroup. 

The “automatic flunk” provision also offers a somewhat different perspective on the question I raised earlier:  “Who would want to send their child to a school given the lowest rating the state can assign?”  Given the way “automatic flunk” works, the question might be more reasonably expressed as, “Who would want to send their child to a school in which four out of 70 economically disadvantaged students are not properly assessed in math or science?”  My guess is that most parents would answer these two questions quite differently. 

Finally, let’s compare some overall measurements of success, including percentile ranking, math proficiency and color score for a number of high schools:

School
Percentile Rank
Math Proficiency
Color Designation
Ashley
Not available
Not available
Green
Mayville
6
35.71%
Lime
West Bloomfield
44
55.91%
Yellow
Portage Northern
77
57.72%
Orange
Pioneer
93
80.88%
Red

Notice a trend?  One would expect a strong correlation between performance measurements (such as math proficiency and percentile ranking) and color designation.  However, for these schools, at least, the higher the student achievement data, the worse the color rank.

So, to summarize my findings:
·       The only ways for a high school to get a green designation are 1) to have so few students that no statistically significant measurements can be obtained, or 2) to close.

·       The best way to get a lime designation is to have a school with no minorities present – no minorities, no achievement gap.

·       If you are a large, diverse school and have even a small number of students in the various subgroups who are not tested, you receive an “automatic red."

·       Schools with very high achievement scores can nevertheless receive a lower color designation than schools with very low achievement scores.

Given these findings, I believe the color rating scheme 
used by Michigan Department of Education is not 
only arbitrary, meaningless and useless, it is 
actually destructive.  It completely fails the stated 
objective of   providing “a fairly easy way for 
the public to understand from a variety of 
measurements how their school buildings and 
districts are doing.”  In fact, anyone relying on these 
color ratings would, in all likelihood, be completely misled 
regarding the quality of a given school.

It’s high time to toss this system into the nearest trash can and start over.

Andy Thomas, Trustee
Ann Arbor Board of Education 



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